The Winter Olympics are now over and we can slip back onto our regular mode of complacency and firm commitment to mediocrity — or we could explore what went right and what we could do about it in the longer term.
I am proudly bemused about our unexpected success at this level of international competition. I am not surprised that our Olympic athletes placed prominently in the top five in most events. I am pleasantly astounded that we collected so many gold medals. The surprise is not so much that we did it — we have the climate, the training facilities and talent. The difference this time is in the psychological mindset that our athletes and the country generally adopted in approaching these games.
Psychological mindset is hugely important in achieving excellence. Thinking back on Roger Bannister’s cracking the four-minute-mile, one is struck not so much about what he was thinking as he ran that race, but what has happened since. Once he broke that barrier the floodgates opened to the point that no world-class runner now qualifies to enter that event unless his time is under four minutes.
The question then is how one gets to that level of sustained positive thinking. One way is to have the quiet inner conviction that it can be done. This is the model Canadians have generally followed and the one we feel most comfortable with. The Yanks have taken a different approach. They expect to win. Coming second is failure. Their approach is brash and arrogant — both individually and collectively. While we admire what they have done, their way of going about it has led them to be intensely disliked. Indeed it has reached the stage that, in many global arenas, beating the United States is more important and satisfying than winning overall.
So you will perhaps find some kindred empathy for my concern that we approached these Vancouver Games with a Yankee-like bravado. The slogan of Own The Podium was a risky one for our international reputation and self-esteem. Certainly the British press had a run at us. Of course that was expected — we are a former colony and consequently of lower genetic and social stock than those who remained on that tight little island. Not only that, we didn’t even have the courage to fight for our rights and freedom as the American colonists did.
Still, our athletes did it. And with the most extraordinary reactions. The United States’ press was polite, supportive and complimentary. The British press, at the end, acknowledged that we did a good job overall. Most important of all is our own reaction. Is this attitude of openly stating that we are number one going to implant itself into the national psyche and change our overall attitude to our place in the world — commercially, diplomatically and politically?
If this is the new generation then we need to become better prepared. Such a shift in attitude can only be successfully sustained if we change it to face a number of issues. First we need to come to grips with our national history. It is fractious but fascinating and needs to be taken to the streets with confidence rather than perpetual apologies. Second, we need a federal Parliament we can be proud of. Let’s build some dignity and pride into its members, beginning with our political leaders. Owning The Podium in our national institutions doesn’t have to mean using dictatorial and insulting behaviours. Thirdly, let’s go on the offensive with the United States. Let’s market our healthcare system, our educational institutions, our research and developmental capacity and our financial institutions. George Hees, one time minister of trade and commerce, embossed GYOAAS on his cufflinks — Get Off Your Ass and Sell. Today we need to update it to OTP — with federal support.
Dr. Alan Murdock is a local pediatrician.